Both Atlético Madrid and Manchester City played on Saturday, and both sides won. The games weren’t direct reflections of how Tuesday night’s Champions League quarterfinal meeting at the Etihad will develop, but we will take a look at both to see what each manager is thinking before the clash.
We won’t be getting any surprises: Pep gonna Pep and Cholo gonna Cholo, but the match will be defined in the details. There was nothing novel in either game at the weekend that would signal wholesale changes from their tried and trusted.
João Félix has emerged as the player Atlético need him to be in recent weeks and it makes them dangerous and fun to watch. During the recent good run of results, Diego Simeone has leaned heavily into Marcos Llorente on the right as an out ball and attacking outlet to feed the Portuguese attacker.
The 22-year-old’s offside goal against Manchester United at Old Trafford came from a Llorente pass on the right, and the opener against Alavés was from the same position (but Šime Vrsaljko’s boot) at the weekend. He scored two tap-ins against Real Betis from the right and the picture below exemplifies the perfect move.
Llorente is one of the fastest players in Spain and is so powerful that every transition is a potential attack. It’s just a matter of whether his teammates can keep up with him.
This has long been a feature of Simeone’s Atlético and particularly in recent weeks, where they do sit deeper once the ball is progressed past the halfway line and try to catch teams in transition. Llorente’s return to his best position has facilitated this, and it’s an area where Simeone will try to catch Man City on the break.
Simeone’s plan, and that of Pep Guardiola, will rely heavily on a what a man named João from Portugal does.
No, not João Félix, the other Portuguese João.
João Cancelo is Pep’s left-back, but he provides width and depth, sometimes as their most advanced player.
Below, we can see Cancelo’s touches during the Burnley game. Fifty percent of his touches were in the opposition half and that trend should continue on Tuesday at the Etihad. This holds true for all of Pep’s options at full-back. Renan Lodi has reinvented himself as a wing-back and will play on the left in the absence of Yannick Carrasco and will be tasked with stretching the field in transition.
Simeone’s insistence on the 4-4-2 formation leaves Atlético limited when it comes to vertical options. They will not be able to break Manchester City’s set defence down, so they’ll have to catch them on the break.
Hurting City in transition is the second stage of the plan. The first stage is catching them in transition.
Llorente partnered Geoffrey Kondogbia in midfield against Alavés, with a returning Thomas Lemar on the right and Renan Lodi on the left. But Koke, who was suspended on Saturday, will come back in against City barring some unexpected change of heart from Cholo. Atlético’s captain is the nerve centre of this team, and this game will be won or lost in the center of the park.
Simeone has to plan for how Atlético deal with Manchester City’s number 8s dropping during build-up. Against Burnley, İlkay Gündoğan and Kevin De Bruyne often dropped into the number five position vacated by Rodri, who dropped into defense to aid in the build-up.
This will cause two problems for Atlético. It will leave Félix and Antoine Griezmann to deal with three players in Man City’s last line. And Atlético will have to make decisions about what to do with De Bruyne. Do you simply sit back and let him rip you apart from the number five spot? Or do you chase him and leave holes in your midfield?
That will depend on how Simeone wants to try to press in the middle. Cholo will likely tell Koke and Kondogbia to sit and protect the back line. José Giménez was not named in Atlético’s squad for the game and Felipe will likely replace him, giving Simeone further impetus to wait this one out and hope City make a mistake.
Atlético have been prepping for this game for weeks. Their possession stats have been slowly declining, with 36 percent in ties against Celta Vigo and Real Betis in recent weeks. Their season-low was 29 percent against Liverpool and then 30 percent against Barcelona in October. That number might drop even lower against a team like City, in the form of their lives and looking unstoppable.